THE SHOOTER AND THE STOPPER

Swedish scorer Pelle Eklund and rookie goalie Ron Hextall powered Philadelphia to a 3-1 playoff lead over Montreal
May 17, 1987

Gambles take on a dreadful weight at this point in the hockey season. On Sunday night Montreal coach Jean Perron bet the rent on the hero of the Canadiens' 1986 Stanley Cup championship, goaltender Patrick Roy, and the Philadelphia Flyers—two in particular, a rookie goaltender and a reticent but deadly Swedish center—all but nailed an eviction notice to Perron's door.

His decision to bench Brian Hay-ward, who had started nine straight playoff games, and play Roy, who had been practicing halfheartedly since his demotion, backfired badly. Roy, obviously rusty, was beaten four times before Perron mercifully waved him back to the bench and went once more with Hayward, who gave up two more goals. When it was all over, the Flyers had a 6-3 win, a two-game sweep at the Montreal Forum, a 3-1 lead in the semifinal-round Cup series and a surprise hero.

Pelle Eklund, a 24-year-old second-year center from Stockholm, had a dream weekend in Canada. He scored five goals—two in a 4-3 comeback win in Game 3 on Friday night and three in Sunday's rout. A thoroughly reserved sort, Eklund also set some kind of record for the least amount of exulting after a playoff hat trick. "Don't worry," said the terminally poker-faced Swede, "inside of me, I'm excited."

In the other semifinal series Edmonton recovered from a shocking 3-1 loss at home in Game 1 to take a shaky two-games-to-one lead over Detroit. The normally high-flying Oilers were held to a meager seven goals in the three games by Detroit's smothering defenders. Edmonton coach Glen Sather didn't exactly blame the Red Wings for their clutch-and-grab tactics, but he did wonder aloud why the referees had called so little of the holding and interference. In Game 2 referee Bob Myers did caution Detroit defender Gil Delorme that he would have to stop the holding or be called for it. To which Delorme shot back, "What do I have, a time limit?"

Philadelphia and Montreal split their first two games in the Spectrum, the Flyers winning 4-3 in sudden death, the Canadiens coasting 5-2 in Game 2. Then came the Metamorphosis, the 15 minutes the Flyers spent in their dressing room after falling behind 2-0 in the first period of Game 3. Opinions varied as to whether the 20 minutes they had just spent on the Forum ice was their worst period of the playoffs, the season or recent franchise history.

"We stunk the place out," defense-man Brad Marsh would say later that night. True enough. But Philadelphia was only two goals behind because goal-tender Ron Hextall had been brilliant. The Canadiens had kept the rookie flopping like a marionette, firing 21 shots at him in the period. Recalls Marsh, "Between periods, Ron Sutter just said, 'C'mon guys, think how bad we played and how much better we can play.' "

Off in a corner, maintaining his usual silence, Eklund was ready to put the power of positive thinking on display. In the next two periods, Eklund, the 167th pick in the 1983 entry draft, went out and turned the game—and perhaps the series—around. He scored two goals and later set up a third.

Afterward, reporters naturally sought out Eklund for interviews. Problem was, all they knew about him was that he is Swedish. "Which one is Eklund?" became the question of the hour.

"Pelle?"

"No, I am Ilkka Sinisalo."

"Ilkka, is that Pelle, with the porcupine hairdo?"

"No, that's Brian Propp."

"Are you Pelle Eklund?"

"Buddy, I collect towels. That's him over there."

The dishwater blond in the corner, face dark with the requisite playoff stubble, turned out to be vaguely uncomfortable in the spotlight, which had shone on his linemate Tim Kerr until he was sidelined with a shoulder injury in Game 6 of the Flyers' quarterfinal series against the Islanders. Asked why he seems to play a tougher brand of hockey than other Swedes in the league, Eklund said, "I feel I must do it [play rough]. Now, I go along the boards and get into it."

No matter what he might think, on this Flyer team, including such notable enforcers as Rick Tocchet, Don Nachbaur and Dave Brown, Eklund at his orneriest still comes off as a Lady Byng candidate. Though Eklund was a dazzling skater and playmaker in Sweden, the Flyers had so many good centers when he arrived last season that coach Mike Keenan didn't give him a regular shift. Eklund got most of his minutes on power plays. Kerr broke the record for power-play goals that season with 34, and Eklund assisted on 17 of them.

Now with Kerr out, Eklund is taking a few more shots. He is tied for third in the NHL in postseason scoring with 19 points on 6 goals and 13 assists.

"You can't check him," says Marsh. "He dissolves and shows up somewhere else and creates a scoring opportunity." Adds Hextall, "Pelle's like throwing a curveball at them."

If so, Hextall is a high heater to the head. That is where he clocked pesky Montreal winger Claude Lemieux with his stick in Game 2 after Lemieux had strafed the crease once too often. Not long into the ensuing power play, Lemieux beat Hextall to a loose puck and flipped it over him to put the Canadiens ahead 4-0 and the game out of reach. Hextall is blessed with exquisite skills and reflexes. His biggest enemy—other than Ranger G.M. Phil Esposito, who despises any Flyer on general principle and has referred to Hextall as Ronald McDonald—might be his temper.

"Maybe it was a stupid penalty," said Hextall after the 5-2 loss. "But maybe it put a message in their heads for next time. Hindsight's for losers anyway."

"Ron is excused," said Keenan. "He has been exceptional in all but two of our playoff games. He was due to have a game like that." But like the great ones, Hextall, who turned 23 this week, put his bad game behind him and turned in two gems in Montreal. He left the Forum with the top record (11-6) among playoff goalies.

Not that Game 3 was without incident. With Hextall, who led all goalies in penalty minutes this year, is it ever? All night he wandered out of his crease, and he was knocked down at least three times. "He's fair game," says Montreal's Chris (Knuckles) Nilan. "He thinks he's a defenseman back there."

"Every time I looked back, he was on his butt," said Flyer coach Mike Keenan, who spent much of the week complaining. After Game 2 he accused Hayward of using a leg pad that was wider than the maximum 10 inches allowed by NHL rules. Furthermore, claimed the Flyers, Roy's catching mitt was too long. Even if Keenan's charges were true, there was little that seemed to help Montreal.

"Assume everything we usually do right didn't click, and everything they do did," offered downcast Canadien Bob Gainey. The veteran left wing was slumped in front of his locker, looking every one of his 33 years as he faced Game 5 and possible elimination back in the Spectrum. Assume what you will—just don't bet the rent on the Habs.

PHOTOANTHONY NESTENo way Flyer Doug Crossman (3) was going to let Bobby Smith get too close to Hextall. PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLHextall often makes like his fellow Philadelphian Mike Schmidt when he clears the puck. PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLEklund dazzled the hostile crowd in Montreal with his bag of tricks.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)